John Hood's Reviews > Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life

Literary Brooklyn by Evan Hughes
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's review
Sep 25, 2011

it was amazing
Read in August, 2011

Bound: Brooklyn's in the House
The Literary Legacy of a Hipster Borough
SunPost Weekly August 11, 2011 | John Hood

Forget the suits, bespoke or otherwise. Disregard the hats and the saddle shoes, the custom shirts and the silken ties. For like Walt Whitman I am at heart “one of the roughs.” Sure, I chew with mouth closed, mostly, and can manage all of the other manners one has to summon in so-called polite society. Nevertheless (again citing Whitman) “I am the mate and companion of people, all just as fathomless and immortal as myself.” In other words, even in pretense I’m aware of my position. Okay, so maybe the “voices of the diseased and despairing, and of thieves and dwarfs” are but a mumble when they come through me. Still, they’re there all right. That’s why when I see a place remade for the safe and sound, I get irked. Then I get the hell outta town.

It happened to me in New York’s East Village, and later on the Lower East Side. It happened again on South Beach. And were it not for the economic crisis currently affecting the country, it could well have happened in the working class enclave called Silver Bluff, where I now live amid a sea of folks “just as fathomless and immortal as myself.” No, “they do not know how immortal. But I know.” And (said the fathead) that’s what counts.

All of the above is merely a roundabout way for me to mark the loss (and the gain) which has plagued the Borough of Brooklyn. On the one hand, it’s become the much-ridiculed haven for way too many hipsters. On the other, it possesses a legacy that will endure as long as we do. In Evan Hughes’ Literary Brooklyn (Holt $16) that legacy is writ as large and as forceful as the writers who’ve left it behind.

As you might suspect, it all begins with Whitman, “The Grandfather of Literary Brooklyn,” who went from being the “eccentric” editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, to becoming the “social dropout” behind the sensation we now know as Leaves of Grass. The epic was the ultimate DIY project, created despite rather than because of filthy lucre. And one suspects that were Whitman to be alive in today’s Brooklyn, he’d have little chance to do likewise.

Or would he? As Hughes notes, the Brooklyn of today teams with writers, among them Jhumpa Lahiri, Colson Whitehead, Jennifer Egan, Rick Moody and Jonathan Safran Foer, not to mention Paul Auster (who inadvertently became a harbinger of the boom) and Jonathan Lethem (who was born and raised in the borough). The Brooklyn Book Festival, “an enormous event,” has become “the most prominent of its kind in New York and among the most prestigious in the country.” The borough is also the home of such publications as n+1, which, depending on your temperament, is either startlingly keen or annoyingly elite. Things have gotten so bad in fact that Whitehead felt compelled to pen an essay for The New York Times entitled “I Write in Brooklyn. Get Over It.”

But to me it’s the between things that really give Brooklyn boasting privileges, be it the bear-like Thomas Wolfe (who scribbled madly from Cobble Hill), and the madcap cool of February House (the “wedding cake” home to everyone from Carson McCullers to Paul and Jane Bowles), or the post-War wile of William Styron, Arthur Miller and Hubert Selby Jr., neither of whom would have become what they had without the peculiar bite of the borough. Then there’s Norman Mailer, who seemed to epitomize the gruff and tumble characteristics of Brooklyn, even so far as loudly touting his “genius” ala Whitman.

Hughes, himself a Brooklyn resident writer, captures each and every one of the aforementioned immortals (and more) with the flair and devotion of a true Brooklynite. Whether he does so in praise or in defense of his newly beloved borough is beside the point. The fact of the matter is that he does so, and he does so with a style and a swagger befitting a city too long in the shadows of another.
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